Originally posted 9 February 2001
Movies: Sweet November, Save the Last Dance, Yi Yi
When friends learned Women.com had hired me to interview Keanu Reeves in person, they freaked out. Men and women of all ages, married and single, asked me to slip him their numbers and let him know they were available and *talented.*
Personally, I was feeling less than excited about the interview because 1) it was to be conducted at the junket for Reeves's new movie, "Sweet November," which meant I'd have to spend most of a Saturday hanging around an airless mid-town hotel with a bunch of other low-rent reporters waiting to talk to the big guy; and 2) the only meaningful question I (or any of my smitten friends) could come up with was, "Are you David Geffen's boy toy?" But junkets swarm with publicists who will cut you off, if not kick you out, for asking supposedly speculative questions like that, so I was going to be limited to things like, "How do you choose your roles?" Yawn.
Then my friend Erik (who suggested I ask what kind of shoes Geffen wears around the house) pointed out that even if Reeves wasn't the most intriguing star on the planet, it would be cool to meet a major American sex symbol in person. True enough.
On the appointed Saturday, I load up my tape recorder, slip into a red skirt and black shirt, and haul a stack of magazines to the Drake Hotel. The junket starts at 9am, but I have been told to arrive a little before 3pm in order to do a one-on-one videotaped interview with Reeves; the roundtables (in which a bunch of reporters interview the movie's stars) will be held at 5pm. I arrive at 2:50 and immediately learn that the interviews are running at least an hour late. I settle into a sofa in the hospitality suite, and before I can even crack open the New Yorker, I am distracted by a reporter who looks vaguely like Dylan McDermott. He is leaning over the check-in table, glaring at the young publicists, pronouncing each word as if it were its own sentence: "I. Have. Been. Here. Since. Noon. I still haven't gotten my interview. It's not right."
The check-in table--command central at a junket--is staffed by four cheery women in their early twenties who work for Warner Brothers' publicity department. They wear chunky-heeled boots, Gap turtlenecks and pants, two in faux leather snakeskin prints that go "fweep fweep" when the women walk. They nosh on food from the spread in the corner, and they flip through Entertainment Weekly and Allure, and they chat about the junket for "Hannibal." One with short brown hair smiles and assures Dylan that he will get his interview soon; she strides out of the room to check for him. Her long-blonde-haired compatriot asks him, "Did you see 'Hannibal'? It is so gory, I can't tell you." She pops a grape into her mouth.
It's hot in the hospitality suite, and it smells like mayonnaise. There is evidence that the junket has been dragging on for hours; coats are strewn about, the garbage is full, open Diet Coke bottles sit on the window ledges. Still, the mood is upbeat. Journalists wander into the room to flirt with the publicists. Warner Brothers higher-ups, wearing headsets, swing in to get beverages and conspire good-naturedly about the backed up schedule. Uniformed Drake employees stop by to refresh the snack table and report on the progress of another junket taking place upstairs; I never discover what, in the publicists' parlance, they are "junketing" on the upper floors of the hotel.
Every now and then, one of the headset types comes in and takes a handful of reporters into the back of the hotel for their one-on-ones. The people doing these videotaped interviews are mostly television reporters, although a couple of us are from online outlets that will post video clips on their Websites. One of the major TV shows, I forget which, gets a full 20 minutes with each star; the rest of us--mostly from places you've never heard of (Long Island Cable Entertainment, College Network Broadcasts)--get five minutes apiece. Reeves, co-star Charlize Theron and supporting actor Jason Isaacs are available for the one-on-ones.
Women.com wants a profile of Reeves, and they don't especially care if I do one-on-one interviews with the other stars. But my editor had suggested I try to line up a quickie with Theron or Isaacs first, just so that I could get a sense of what's it's like to question a celeb. I do a bzillion interviews on the phone every week, and a handful in person every month, plus I attended the junket for "The End of the Affair" last year. So although I rarely speak with celebs in my work as a business writer, I feel confident that I won't need a warm up for Reeves. When I mention this to my editor, she says, "Fine. But you keep calling the movie 'Sweet September.' For god's sake, get the name right when you're interviewing Keanu."
After an hour of lurking around the hospitality suite, I get called back for my one-on-one with Reeves. What this really means is that instead of waiting in an overheated conference room, I'm now waiting in an overheated hallway outside the interview room. There are six other reporters in front of me. One is a friendly, professional woman in her 40s who looks like she's been doing this forever; apropos of nothing, she tells me that George Clooney makes everyone feel like they've got a shot. I chat up the mid-level WB publicity people and learn that the interviews have been whittled down to four minutes to save time, and tomorrow there will be an all-day junket for the international media.
A small piece of me feels sorry for the actors, who must endure ten hours of insipid, repetitive questions two days in a row, plus appearances on talk shows and extended interviews with journalists from major publications. But then I think, Reeves is making a reported $15 million for "Sweet November"; I am making $800 to spend five hours hanging around the Drake hotel conducting pallid interviews, two hours watching the crummy movie the night before, half an hour reading this month's Vanity Fair cover story on Reeves (which constituted my research), and three hours writing up the profile (which is no longer available online--devastating, I know), minus $17 roundtrip cab fare from my apartment to the hotel. All things considered, I expect my celeb to be perky for four minutes of questions.
He is not. When I get into the dim-lighted room and shake his hand, he barely smiles. He looks like he hasn't been outside in a week. His is pale and his hair is sticking out in five directions. His patience is waning. I get hooked up for sound and start in with my questions about how he chooses his roles, blah, blah, blah. He mumbles the requisite answers, getting more animated when I ask about Dogstar, his semi-successful rock band. He seems more like a guy I might have gone to high school with than a major American sex symbol. Perhaps he should get some pointers from Clooney. At one-minute intervals, a producer sitting behind Reeves and off to the side motions at me with her hands: three fingers, then two, then one, then a fist when I'm down to thirty seconds. I think this is absolutely the coolest part. I feel like I'm on "Sportsnight."
After the one-on-one, I'm sent over to the online journalists' roundtable. A dozen 20-somethings are sitting around a large rectangular table, waiting for the stars. They are talking about who's going down next on "Survivor: The Australian Outback." That conversation has been pretty much exhausted when Jason Isaacs is ushered into the room. He has a fairly small role in "Sweet Novmeber," but he plays it well. A Brit whose biggest role in Hollywood so far was as the evil commander in "The Patriot" (which I did not see), Isaacs is fun in the interview. He is energetic, and he jokes with the reporters. Without asking even a single question, I get a couple of good quotes about Keanu for my profile. After 20 minutes, Isaacs is taken away and we're told it will be a while before we get Keanu.
In contrast to the junket I attended last year, where the reporters were none too friendly, this group is chatty and collegial. A funny woman close to my age asks everyone what the worst interview they ever conducted was. Most of the assembled are regular entertainment reporters, and they attend junkets all the time, so there are plenty of juicy stories. (It is generally agreed that the press conference for "Charlie's Angels" was the weirdest industry event in recent memory, since the film's three co-stars played with each other's hair throughout the proceedings.) I ask what films everyone liked best in 2000, and we are getting into a good debate when the door pops open and a WB publicity honcho tells us to pipe down--they can barely hear themselves in the radio journos roundtable next door. Chagrinned, we switch over to whispering about upcoming movies. Somebody mentions that she's seen "Hannibal," and it was *gruesome.*
Finally, Reeves is shown in. Before he sits down, he looks around the table and nods at me and the other online reporter who did a one-on-one; I am surprised. For the group, Reeves is slightly more upbeat than he had been in the darkened video interview room, but he maintains a fairly serious demeanor and does not break into a full smile the whole time. The reporters stick to inquiries about his work and career--a sharp difference from "The End of the Affair" journos, who asked nothing but penetrating personal questions. After discussing his training schedule for "The Matrix" sequels (full days of stretching, kicking, punching, choreography, wire work) and directors he'd like work with (Werner Herzog, Lars Van Trier, Neil LaBute, the Coen Brothers), Reeves is shown out. Somebody asks him if he's looking forward to a quiet night, and he says, "Actually, I have a meeting to go to." It's tough being a major Hollywood presence.
There's another delay, then Charlize Theron walks in. Unlike Reeves, who is less impressive and less sexy in person, she is much more so. On screen, she has a generic girl-next-door look. But in person, Theron--who used to be a model--is more than six feet tall, plus three-inch heels, and she's made up for the cameras. She sparkles. She has a brilliant smile, which she flashes regularly as she kids around with the reporters, and she is engaging. She seems like she is of another species. She is only 25 years old.
I get more quotes on Reeves for my profile, then the roundtable is over, and it's time to go. For those of you who were hopeful, I'm sorry to report that I could not manage to slip Keanu any phone numbers.
As I mentioned, I had to see "Sweet November" as part of this process. There was a screening the night before the junket, and I took my friend Keith. We had a drink beforehand; we should have had four. The movie is a dopey romantic drama, and although Keith says that he heard people around him sobbing at the end, I didn't even realize the flick was supposed to be a tear-jerker. The only reason I can think "Sweet November" was made is to demonstrate that Reeves is straight.
Here's how "Sweet November" scored on a scale of 1 - 10 in my categories of analysis:
* Shoes: 7. Reeves wears some stylish ones, although Theron is pretty much clad in slippers and sneakers throughout the film. (Her shoes for the junket, however, were very appealing strappy little black sandals with spike heels. He wore battered old hiking boots with rag wool socks peeking out over the top.)
* Dogs: 5. The movie includes a couple of little toy dogs of some kind and a bunch of frouffed standard poodles. (For the final question in her roundtable session, Theron was asked about her work with PETA, and she said, "Well, I just think children and dogs come into this world defenseless," or something like that. I knocked three points off my overall score of her, but she gained 'em back when she said she had recently adopted a bunch of mutts. How can you dislike a gorgeous fellow mutt owner?)
* Cell phones: 3. Moderate use in the movie itself, none rang during the screening. (At the junket, I was surprised at the relatively few cell phones brandished by reporters and publicists. Everyone seemed to use the complimentary land-line phones provided by the Drake.)
So that was that. Here're are two more movie opinions for your reading pleasure, plus my top movie picks of 2000:
The problem with me is that I sometimes go see movies like "Save the Last Dance." Lacking any evidence that the movie will be good, I bravely attend, hoping for redemption in an overlooked screenplay or a novel plotline. I probably don't need to tell you that "Save the Last Dance," which I saw a few weeks ago at the Sony on 84th Street with Jenny, a friend from the dogrun, has neither. Julia Stiles plays a high school girl who has to move from suburban Long Island to inner-city Chicago when her mother is killed in a car accident. It's hard to be a great-looking white chick at all-black and Latino school. But with the right clothes, a sassy attitude and a vocabulary that's off the hook, you can blend right in.
The movie crams about eight major social themes into its flimsy story, worrying about everything from teenage motherhood to fake IDs. And while I went to this flick looking for dance scenes along the lines of "Fame" or "Flashdance," I got less satisfaction than I would have from a Paula Abdul video (of which there is at least one in which Keanu Reeves stars).
On the other hand, Julia Styles is a winning actress (she's also very, very good in "State and Main," which counts among its stars a certain three-named actor none of you has yet set me up with). Kerry Washington, who plays a Chicago student who befriends Stiles, has a presence that positively lights up the screen.
I don't remember enough of "Save the Last Dance" to rate it in any of my categories.
I'm also not going to rate "Yi Yi" according to the footwear and canine action, because it really doesn't lend itself to that sort of scrutiny. But I saw it at Cinema Village recently and can say with confidence that it is one of the best films to hit screens in a long while. Here's my friend Judy Wolfe's review, which I am stealing wholesale because I am wiped out after writing about "Sweet September" and because Judy really nails this one (actually, she really nails most reviews, which you can have emailed to you by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org ):
If you have three hours to spare, this multi-layered cinematic treat directed and written by Taiwanese Filmmaker Edward Yang, is for you. This is a film about a middleclass family living in Taipei. It begins with a contentious wedding and ends with the collective thoughtfulness of a funeral. The Jians consist of a middle aged man, his wife, mother-in-law (who is in a coma), teenage daughter, eight-year-old son, brother-in-law, business partners, old flame and all of the other attachments that people such as you and I have, including crazy neighbors.
There is nothing extraordinary about this story, but the filmmaking is nothing short of brilliant. Conversations are heard in shadows without the outrageous close-ups that we are subjected to in most American films. The reflections of life outside of the frame, the shots through glass, the conversations merely heard through a closed door. There are many wonderful and unique ways that we are allowed to observe the action--or non-action--on the screen. This film is a remarkable achievement.
Finally: the best celluloid expenditures of last year! Although my favorite movies of 2000 were all revivals ("Gimme Shelter," "Rififi," "Blood Simple"), there were a dozen new releases I liked a lot. These are ranked in order, from most favorite to least, and I thought the top six were really fine films.
1. You Can Count on Me (N.B. This is the movie I would most like to have written myself.)
2. Chuck and Buck
3. Yi Yi
5. Crouching Tiger
6. Requiem for a Dream
7. Erin Brockovich
8. Nurse Betty
9. The Terrorist
10. Charlie's Angels
12. Chicken run
Keanu Reeves wasn't in any of my faves for 2000. But with "The Matrix 2" coming out in 2002, there's still hope. Plus, Charlize Theron is going to be in a few flicks in 2001. She's a hottie, so start writing your notes now; I'll try to slip them to her at the next junket.